Khaled Moustafa was half asleep at his home in Farsta in southern Stockhom when he got a text from his sister Fatma urgently asking him to call the Greek coastguard. It was 3am.
The 40-year-old, who himself sought asylum in Sweden in 2012 after his suburb in the Syrian capital was “blown up”, initially thought he was having a nightmare. But his worst fears were confirmed when she called him in tears a few minutes later, struggling to make her voice heard above the screams of her fellow passengers.
“She said 'please do something, the water is up to our bellies',” Moustafa told The Local on Wednesday.
“I got all these horrible images of her and her children sinking. I could imagine her gasping for air. She has a lot of phobias – she hates swimming and the beach. She had faced her fears to get on the boat and now she was dying,” he went on, his voice breaking.
Khaled Moustafa's sister Fatma Moustafa, pictured in 2006. Photo: Private
According to Moustafa, his sister was one of 50 passengers on the boat, which was travelling to the Greek island of Kos from Turkey. But she was the only one whose phone was still working, because she had covered it in plastic to protect it from the water. He explained that Fatma, 31, was on the vessel with her husband and their three children under five. They were all hoping to seeking asylum in Germany.
“I opened my computer and I called the Greek coastguard,” Moustafa continued.
“But the lady on the other side was not really helpful. She said 'we get a lot of people calling' and that the area was really big so she would not be able to locate her.”
After briefly “freaking out” he then had a brainwave to call 112, the European number for the emergency services.
“I just thought 'let's give it a try'…The gentleman on the other side was very reassuring and said 'okay, give me her number' and said he would call back in five minutes.”
The operator kept his word and told Moustafa that his relative's details had been passed on to international police, who would attempt to locate the boat using GPS.
Around an hour later, the phone rang again. This time was his sister calling to explain that she had been rescued from the boat after being contacted by Greek authorities who had been given her number.
“She said 'they saved us, thank you, I will call you later'. It was a big 'hallelujah' moment and then my tears were of happiness,” Moustafa said, adding that his sister and her family were now safe and well in Germany.
He explained that he would remain forever grateful to the Swedish phone operator who took his call but said that they had had no further contact since the rescue.
“I think his name was Christian…but I am not sure,” he confessed.
Other Syrians arriving on Kos in Greece this summer. Photo: Thanassis Stavrakis/TT
The incredible search operation took place in July but only emerged in the Swedish media this week. Moustafa told The Local he had recently recounted the story to a Swedish friend he'd met on a coaching course in Oslo and that his contact had then shared it with a cousin who works at Swedish tabloid Expressen.
By midday on Wednesday, the newspaper's original interview was among the most read news articles in the country, according to Swedish social news site Socialanyheter.
“I am surprised,” said Moustafa, when asked by The Local about the reaction to his tale.
He said he hoped his family's trauma would encourage Swedish and international authorities to work to offer safer passages to Europe for asylum seekers, instead of leaving them to take what he refers to as “the boat of death”.
“My parents are currently in Dubai…they are illegal,” he explained.
“They have no residency and I want them to see my child, their grandchild, who was born a year ago. We have tried to reunite them with my family here in Sweden or my other brothers and sisters who are spread around the world but this has been rejected. Now they are talking about getting on the boat of death just like my sister did…They have no other option. It is absurd and disappointing.”
Khaled Moustafa with his parents in 2008. Photo: Private
Moustafa – who spoke to The Local in both flawless English and a high level of Swedish – currently works in sales for the airline Emirates in Stockholm and as a freelance life and relationships coach. He could afford to fly his parents – who are both almost 70 – to Sweden from Dubai, if they were granted a visa.
“To be fair to the Swedish authorities they are mostly doing a great job [to help asylum seekers] but it is like me cooking you a nice meal and only giving you half of it,” he argues.
“I do not feel completely safe here because a part of me is not with me. When my child was born it was not a happy moment without my parents. Something was missing.”
Khaled Moustafa pictured with his wife and four children in Sweden. Photo: Private